How was public opinion forged in the Atlantic world during the age of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions? This essay takes up this question by looking at the vexed role of propaganda in manufacturing democratic consent. In particular, it examines a counterfeit set of letters attributed to George Washington. The strange career of these forged communiqués reveals how epistolary propaganda widened public opinion so that it intersected with currents of radical republicanism associated with hemispheric revolution. In contrast to contemporary views of propaganda as unified around the state and the corporate interests that it supports, this late eighteenth-century forgery opens a window onto a moment when propaganda appears less villainous, less the tool of public relations practiced by governments and corporations spreading misinformation or outright lies, and more a set of practices for disseminating heterodox truths. By considering the Washington counterfeit amid meditations on revolution and writing from Edmund Burke and William Godwin, a volatile and unstable print culture comes into focus. The argument is not that print is inherently revolutionary but rather that it is the circulation of print that poses a threat to ideals of unified public consent. In this context, unofficial documents such as private letters and secret histories became sources of alternative communication.
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Russ Castronovo; Epistolary Propaganda: Forgery and Revolution in the Atlantic World. boundary 2 1 August 2011; 38 (3): 1–26. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-1430809
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